Trailblazers: Menhat Helmy bridges worlds through art

 Helmy was born in Cairo in 1925 into a large family consisting of seven sisters and two brothers. She passed away in May 2004.

One person who remembers her fondly is her eldest grandson, Canada-based journalist Karim Zidan, who grew up surrounded by her paintings in his family’s home.

“Although she passed away when I was 12 years old, I still have vivid memories of her and our interactions. I recall her helping me build Lego sets and complete jigsaw puzzles,” says Zidan, who oversees Helmy’s estate, to Arab News.

Before becoming a grandmother, Menhat was a talented young woman who pursued studies at the High Institute of Pedagogic Studies for Art in Cairo during the 1940s. She then seized a significant opportunity to study at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Arts in London during the 1950s, reportedly becoming only the second Egyptian woman to study there.

“London played a crucial role in shaping her career,” Zidan remarks. “It was during her time at the Slade School of Fine Arts that she discovered printmaking, an art form that would define her work and legacy. My grandmother created her initial etchings while at the school.”

In the 1970s, Helmy ventured into abstraction, as seen in her 1973 masterpiece “Space Exploration.”

“During this period, my grandmother was captivated by space and technological advancements like computers,” Zidan explains. “She aimed to portray her newfound fascinations in her art, while the geometric harmony in her work is rooted in her admiration for Islamic art. All these elements are vividly depicted in ‘Space Exploration,’ which can be interpreted as a portrayal of the night sky, perfectly aligned constellations, a dynamic universe, or even electrons coursing through a circuit board.”

Today, Helmy’s artworks are housed in prestigious institutions such as the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, and the UCL Art Museum in London.

“The diversity of her artistic repertoire, combined with the complexity and avant-garde nature of her work, is what makes her a pioneering figure in modern Egyptian art,” Zidan concludes.

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